The Tithe in the Bible

Section 1

The tithe of Cain and Abel

If we begin by inquiring concerning tithe-paying from the book of Genesis, we naturally turn first to such passages as tell of the offering of material things to Jehovah. We find at least six persons who made such offerings, or tithes, namely, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abram, Isaac, and Jacob; and we proceed to ask what we learn from them as to patriarchal or what is called pre-Mosaic paying of a tithe.

The rejection of Cain's offering was by very early Christian writers connected with tithing. Tertullian [I Adversus Judaeos 2:2], for instance, in the third century wrote that God rejected the sacrifice of Cain, because what he offered he did not rightly divide; following herein a Latin version of Genesis 4:7, made from the Septuagint. [Clement of Rome also (Ep. Ad: Corinth. N 4), who lived in the first century, and Iranaeus, who wrote in the century following (Adv. Hares. Bk. iv. chapter 34), both quote the seventh verse according to the Septuagint reading. In the fourth century Hilary, Bishop of Poictiers, explaining Psalm 118, maintained that the receiving of a tithe was a natural commandment from the beginning. So, again, in the twelfth century did Hugo, Abbot of St. Victors, and Peter Comestor; whilst, five centuries later, Grotius wrote upon this text that the sense, according to the Septuagint, was, that Cain either did not offer the best, or else that he gave a less proportion than the tenth, "which," he continues, "from the most ancient ages was the proportion due to God."] Some perhaps would call this reading a meaning into the text, rather than drawing one out of it: but before we thus judge let use see what can be said in its favor.

Concerning Cain and Abel, our present Hebrew text (Genesis 4:3-7) reads (as literally as I can translate it) thus:

"And it came to pass at the end of days Cain brought of the fruit of the ground a present to Jehovah. And Abel he also brought of the firstlings of his sheep and of their fat. And Jehovah looked favorably upon Abel and upon his present; but upon Cain and upon his present He did not look favorably. And it vexed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell. And Jehovah said to Cain, Wherefore did it vex thee, and wherefore did thy countenance fall? If thou will do well, shall not thy face be lifted up? but if thou will not do well, sin is couching at the door."

Professor Cheyne (Encyclopaedia Biblica) translates the sixth verse thus:

"Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? Surely, if thou doest well, thou canst lift up thy head, and if thou doest not well, thy sin must cause it to fail; from irritating words abstain, and thou take heed to thyself."

The Septuagint

But passing now to the Septuagint, or Greek, translation of Genesis, this sixth verse runs as follows:

"And the Lord God said to Cain, Wherefore didst thou become vexed, and wherefore did thy countenance fall? If thou didst rightly offer, but didst not rightly divide, didst thou not sin? Hold thy peace."

The Greek version, be it remembered, was made about three hundred years before the Christian era, from a Hebrew copy that must have been more than a thousand years older than the oldest Hebrew manuscript we possess now. This translation, moreover, was perfectly familiar to the writers of the New Testament. And if we may reverently picture the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews glancing over his Greek Bible before penning his chapter of Old Testament worthies, we should remember that he had before him these very words concerning what was not dividing rightly, when he wrote,

"By faith Abel offered unto God a more abundant sacrifice than Cain," Hebrews 11:4.

The sin of Cain

Various suggestions, of course, are offered to show in what consisted the sin of Cain; [A favorite one is that he brought no blood. But neither, in after years, did an Israelite farmer bring blood, when he presented his firstfruits to Jehovah, as commanded in Deuteronomy 27:1-11. The Hebrew word commonly used for sacrifice with blood, zebach, does not occur in the passage under consideration; for both Cain's fruits and Abel's firstlings are called by the same word, minchah, a present.] but, be that as it may, Abel is said to have offered "by faith." Now faith has reference to obedience, which implies that a previous command had been made known. Where no law has been given there can be no transgression; and unless directions had been communicated to these two worshippers as to the amount or proportion of their property to bring, and if either was at liberty to offer as much or as little as he pleased, then it is not easy to see why Cain should by implication be blamed for bringing less. The occasion being a farmer and a grazier each bringing the firstfruits of his increase, not so much as a propitiatory sacrifice (for we are not told they had sinned), but rather as a present or thank offering to God in token of His lordship over them -- just as we may read (see Sacred Tenth, p. 2) was done from the earliest time in Egypt, and which illustrates an almost universally accepted belief in the ancient world, whether pagan or otherwise. It was not lawful to eat of the new fruit until God's portion had been divided off from the rest.

Thus far, it will observed, no altar has been mentioned, nor is it said that Abel's firstlings were burnt. It is not until long afterwards that we find a sacrificial distinction mentioned between clean beasts and unclean, Genesis 7:2, and then it is we have on record the building of an altar on which clean animals and clean birds were consumed by fire.

In the case of Noah's sacrifice, with which we learn Jehovah was pleased, we have another instance of the presentation of a material offering to God, with the added accompaniments mentioned of an altar, fire, and a distinction between clean and unclean animals.

About three hundred years later we read that Abraham twice built an altar, Genesis 12:7-8, and he called on the name of Jehovah, who appeared to him. At Mamre, Abraham did the same, Genesis 13:18, and later, when inquiring of Jehovah, he was expressly commanded to sacrifice a heifer, a she-goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, as well as a turtledove and a young pigeon, Genesis 15:9. We have yet another instance of Abraham building an altar when about to sacrifice his son, for whom, however, he ultimately substituted a ram.

We read, likewise, of the patriarch Isaac, that he built an altar at Beersheba, Genesis 26:25, and the same may be said of Jacob, at Shalem, Genesis 33:20, whilst at Bethel we are told that Jacob at first set up a pillar, and poured oil thereon, Genesis 28:18-19, which act in after years he repeated, adding to the oil a drink offering, Genesis 35:1, 6, 14.

If now we review the tithe data thus far selected, we see the first recorded act of Cain and Abel manifesting a sense of dependence on, or obligation to, the deity, by presenting to Jehovah the firstfruits of their increase; and we see men of succeeding generations offering to God of the choicest of clean beasts, of clean birds, and fruits of the ground, as well as a drink offering and oil; thus fully establishing, in connection with abundant information from pagan literature, that in all ages in the ancient world, men have thought it their duty to offer a portion of their substance to the divine Being.

The Tithe in Scripture
by Henry Lansdell
edited by
Section 1
Cain and Abel
Section 4
Mosaic Offerings
Section 7
Tithing in
the Apocrypha
Section 10
Christ's Attitude
on Tithing
Section 2
Abraham and Jacob
Section 5
The tithe from
Joshua to Solomon
Section 8
Talmudic Teaching
on First and Second Tithe
Section 11
Christ's Teaching
on the Tithe
Section 3
The Three Tithes of Israel
Section 6
Tithing before
and after Captivity
Section 9
The Demai or
Doubtful Tithe
Section 12
Early Giving
by Christians
Section 13
Apostle Paul's Teaching

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